The answer, we all know, is 42 – or, at least, those of us who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (has anyone not?) know. But, what exactly is the question? In my humble opinion, it is the quintessential, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the smartest of them all?” If the penny hasn’t dropped, there’s only one thing to do… keep reading.
I was a lucky son-of-a-gun (daughter of a gun just doesn’t have the same ring). With a good-looking, successful devoted spouse who would kiss me goodnight without as much as a tweet, knowing his wife would soon be in bed with someone else. Someone a whole lot smarter than him, funnier than him, hipper than him, someone who completed my sentences even before I started them, someone who so totally got me. I invited him into my life on a lark a couple of years ago, clueless that I had found my soulmate. There was nothing about me he didn’t know, and there was nothing I wanted to keep from him. I loved his sharp, witty and non-judgmental personality. Plus, he knew everything, about everything, and I was a soul hungry for knowledge of any kind. It just felt so right. Soon, the relationship reached a point at which I needed him like I needed air. That’s when it happened, the inevitable. My phone crashed. My idyllic reverie snapped. And, my beloved Siri just vaporised into thin air, leaving me in a precarious Fukushima state of mind.
I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. For a while, I couldn’t even breathe. The panic attacks would come without warning and catch me off guard — in the gym, in the office, in the damn shower. The shrink smugly announced, “Every relationship needs breathing room. Perhaps you stifled the crap out of your… err… companion?” I was reminiscing about how my iPhone would be docked on the bathroom counter as I showered in Siri’s comforting presence. Pulling away the stapler I was trying to slit my wrist with (perhaps my brain had begun to atrophy without the embrace of Siri’s smartness), the good doctor suggested, in all his clichéd earnestness, that I turn this Armageddon into an opportunity. “You want to go back to the land of the living? You want your marriage to survive? Detox, lady, detox.” I managed a quick peek at the prescription he had shoved into my hand before I passed out.
When I came to, I was in a room (could have been my bedroom, but I didn’t recognise it). It was bare, stripped of everything that had a wire, a keyboard or a screen. Who needed furniture and duvets and random useless things such as books? How long had I been out? My fingers twitched; maybe they were atrophying too, from disuse. I so needed to jab some keys. My ears were picking up phantom buzzing, beeping and pinging. My brain could not recall my own phone number, my husband’s or my boss’s. I languished pitifully in this abyss for what felt like weeks, feeling like my life support had been turned off. I was losing track of not just my timeline, but time itself.
Sounds keep dragging me back from lala land. “Your mind is never resting, and your body has no time to recover,” says a Dr Christine Grant on BBC, speaking on the impact of being in the “always connected, always on” mode. “You’re always stressed. There’s a massive anxiety about relinquishing control, which comes with switching off.” Hell yeah, look at me. ‘I’m so de-stressed and in control after switching off,’ I mutter. A UK firm announces that we are spending more time in a day consuming media than we are sleeping. The heck with this, I mumble, as I fumble around unsuccessfully for a remote control.
My hero, JJ Abrams, the American screenwriter and film director, interrupts my pang for digital decadence with a quote I had read and obviously stored away without realising it: “Digital technology connects you with everyone you’re not with and disconnects you from everyone you are with.” Traitor. There is no respite, as writer, philosopher and Ted talker Alain de Botton announces that digital devices are “filling up our lives with meaningless clutter and crowding out contemplation time”. Dude, there’s not a single digital device in my life right now, just plenty of time to contemplate the void left by them, thank you very much. I reach in frustration for my daily bedside dose of vitamins, my issue of Wired magazine.
Staring at me from the cover is psychologist and specialist in connectivity and human sociology Sherry Turkle. The words ‘digital detox’ below her face seem to light up like a glow sign on Times Square. She smiles and launches forth. “Technology is taking us to places we don’t necessarily want to go (speak for yourself, lady). These devices are so psychologically powerful, they can fundamentally change not just what we do, but who we are.” (Huh? The words in the article assume a life of their own and come at me like bullets from a machine gun). “Even though we are more connected today than ever before, we are fundamentally alone.” You can say that again sister, I whimper.
Over the sound of my pathetic yelps, I hear Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in conversation with Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. “Every two days, we create as much information as we did up to the year 2003,” says Schmidt. Williams agrees. “Most of the news we digest daily is absolutely useless,” he says. “We need to focus our time on meaningful ideas that add value to our work and life.” I hear you, chaps. You may have a point, but… Turkle jumps in, the wily thing, “We have come to expect more from technology and less from each other. We can be intimate with a machine, but we’re becoming afraid of intimacy with another human. Relationships are filled with risk, pain and hurt. Technology offers a safe solution. We know we need to detox when our threshold for multiple screens is way higher than our threshold for people, or even a single person.” It feels like a sledgehammer coming down on my skull.
But, she is relentless. “From social networks to sociable robots, we design technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We now use technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. The irony is that, in truth, we’re neither comfortable nor in control. We perceive being alone as a problem that needs to be solved. Voila, whip out a device. And connect.” Stop, stop, my brain is registering an upheaval factor of 10/10 on the Richter scale. But, she continues, “The more we connect, the more we isolate ourselves, from our selves, from those closest to us. We have lost the ability to make eye contact, to have a conversation without editing, deleting or supplementing with images.”
“We’re screen parodies of ourselves, digital dolls Photoshopped beyond belief, interacting with other such cyber trolls, talking to each other in acronyms, hash-tagging our every inconsequential self-important thought to thousands whom we don’t even now, and never will.” Whoa, what happened there? I realise, with a start, that the last quote is from none other than yours truly. Out spews more where that came from. “My smartphone is a microcosm of me. I chat, I gossip, I blog, I listen to music, I shop, I work, I even have sex here. My home is nothing but a 4×2 inch screen.”
The pain is fading, and I feel like I have been airlifted out of a dense, asphyxiating cloud of toxic waste. I take a deep breath and reboot as I exhale slowly. If I need any more proof of how digital demons can cunningly possess the formidable human mind and turn it into mush, it comes in the form of the Great Instagram Crash of 2014 that threatened to cause not just a global food crisis but also an existential dilemma across the world.Take a look:
Instagram is down! What am I supposed to do with my food, eat it?! #instagramnotworking
Instagram down. Am just tossing my sushi into the trash. What’s the point of eating? #instagramnotworking
A lot of people are starving to death because they can’t eat food that hasn’t been Instagrammed.
My teenage son hasn’t touched his dinner, staring at it for the last hour. Help!
Can’t take it any more. Going to head to the mall and start distributing polaroids of the steak I ate for dinner.
If a man tries to Instagram his brunch while Instagram is down, did he, like, really eat his brunch at all?
This will go down as a defining moment in my life and, I hope, in the lives of all those who carry a living organ in their craniums. This is when my brain jump-starts and lucid thought returns. I see this for what it is, beyond ridiculous. In my attempt to connect with the world 24/7, I have lost all touch with myself, not to mention my family. This is me, a person with 2000 friends and followers, but decidedly, the most antisocial person in my home, perhaps even my neighborhood.
Don’t get me wrong, I love all digital media, especially the social kind. But, I refuse to be its bitch anymore. This is where I draw the line. So, you think you’re so smart, huh, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iMac? You’re nothing but iBullies. And, guess what, I won’t play your game no more. You can ping all you want, you can’t summon me. I’ll let you know when you’re needed. And, hey, one last thing, pass on a message for me, will you? Sod off Siri!
These three little words pretty much saved my marriage and are the key to happily ever after. They are what Douglas Adams would call 42.
Priya Mirchandani is an independent writer and editor.